S&F Online
The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
BCRW: The Barnard Center for Research on Women
about contact subscribe archives links
Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Sovereignty from the North

Mary Simon

This article is reprinted with permission from The Walrus Magazine where it was first published in November 2007.

For generations, Canadians have professed to be a "people of the North." The reality, however, is that the Arctic has been on the margins of Canadian consciousness. This is about to change, not because there has been a radical shift in the Canadian collective consciousness, but rather because the Arctic has become a geopolitical hot potato.

Climate change and sovereignty have parachuted the region into the media spotlight. Increasingly, the average Canadian sees the Arctic as being at risk from the devastating impact of climate change, the implications of which will be felt in every backyard. All of a sudden, control of the Arctic and the famed Northwest Passage—the stuff of poetry and lore—might fall into the hands of others!

At the same time, the current federal government has backed away from commitments to Inuit (along with First Nations and Metis) by not pursuing the historic Kelowna Accord, which was to inject long-promised and much-needed funding into critical infrastructure and programs to improve living conditions for Inuit. Key among these was substantive funding for housing, where overcrowding and hidden homelessness are rampant. Kelowna promised 1,200 housing units over five years. These vanished when the Liberal government fell. The current government did earmark $200 million for new housing in Nunavut, but it has not provided the needed funding in other regions where Inuit are located. Similarly, $1.3 billion for aboriginal health care and $1.8 billion for education have not been provided.

Canada is sending mixed signals about its commitments to the Arctic. The federal Conservatives have done away with our ambassador for circumpolar affairs, shelved the Northern Strategy initiative launched by the Martin Liberals, missed opportunities to build vital scientific research infrastructure, which could have been a legacy of the International Polar Year, downgraded Canada's attendance at last year's Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Salekhard, Russia, and backed away from election promises to build heavy icebreakers.

For the past half-century, Arctic sovereignty crises have appeared every ten to fifteen years. The building of the Alaska Highway during World War II led Mackenzie King to write in his diary that it was like the finger of a giant American hand reaching for the Arctic. In the 1950s, Cold War concerns about Soviet attacks forced Canada to get into bed with the U.S. to build the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar system.

Then came the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, prompting the U.S. to send the supertanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in 1969 and again in 1970. The CIA published an atlas in the early 1970s that labelled the Beaufort Sea of "undetermined" ownership. In August 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea voyaged through the Northwest Passage without permission from the Canadian government. Canada and the U.S. also have an ongoing dispute over the maritime boundary between Alaska and Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. Each side has claimed authority to issue oil and gas leases in the disputed area. In 2005, Canada got into a flap with Denmark—a new chapter in an old story—over claims to tiny Hans Island in the Nares Strait between northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Now, with the advent of climate change, the period between crises appears to be shortening. It has been only a few years since the Hans Island episode, and Canada is again in crisis-response mode over Russia's planting of a flag on the ocean bottom at the North Pole.

Why is Canada prone to these crises? After all, Canada is a northern nation, with full sovereignty over its Arctic waters and territories, right? We become indignant when anyone suggests otherwise. Prime Minister Harper confirmed this recently: "Even Canadians who have never been north of sixty feel it. It's embedded in our history, our literature, our art, our music, and our Canadian soul. That's why we react so strongly when other countries show disrespect for our sovereignty over the Arctic."

The key word here is "react." If we look back over the past century, it is clear that Canada has rarely been out in front on the Arctic sovereignty issue. Instead, federal politicians have typically been caught in frenzies of chest thumping in response to the actions of other states. This points to the embarrassing reality that we have been asleep at our posts when it comes to Arctic affairs.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3                Next page

© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice